July 12 – Desiderius Erasmus

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Desiderius Erasmus, reformer of the Church

The illegitimate son of a priest, Erasmus was possibly born in Rotterdam. He attended school in Gouda and Deventer and was strongly influence by the Brethren of the Common Life.
He gave Jesus a central place in his devotions. In 1486 he became an Augustinian canon. Ordained in 1492, he left the Augustinians to study at the College De Montaigu, Paris, in 1495. Travel to England from 1499 – 1500 led to a close friendship with the notable scholar John Colet and careful study of the New Testament in Greek. His publications grew in number and variety, as did his fascination with the challenge of translating the Bible. Between 1506-1521, his spent time in Paris, Louvain and Italy, as well as making a return to England, and developing a fruitful friendship with Thomas More, celebrated in his book Enconium Moriae. As well as becoming the first teacher of Greek at Cambridge. His prestige was not only academic and pastoral. He was made a royal councillor in Brussels during 1516.

Between 1515 – 1525 Erasmus produced the second earliest Greek New Testament and this went through at least 4 editions. One of these editions was used by Luther in his translation of the New Testament. Erasmus’s NT also played a part in the King James translation of the NT. His work on the Greek was not without critics. Since Erasmus’s work older Greek versions of the whole or parts of the NT have been found and these finds have corrected the many mistakes in Erasmus’s texts.

From 1521, he lived in Basel with J. Froben, the noted printer. There he could write with fewer interruptions. When the city became Protestant, he moved to Freiburg from 1529 – 1535 before returning to Basel, where he died while editing the works of Origen. Advocacy of social, political, educational and religious reform made him an influential leader in the Europe of his day. He corresponded widely with people in a wide range of positions and status. An English edition of his letters is currently being prepared. He was strongly opposed to the corruption of traditional Catholicism and the Papacy, which he saw as indispensable of the European heritage. He sought to clarify their central emphases. Seeking to correct abuses in the church, he wrote a variety of popular and scholarly books, ranging from devotional works, such as his Enchiridion (1504) to editions of the Fathers. Initially, he welcomed Luther’s teaching and writing as complementary to his own. He, however, grew disturbed at its increasingly polemical nature and potential to undermine Catholic unity. That was made plain in De Libero Abitrio, to which Luther replied in De Servo Abitrio. Erasmus replied with Hyperaspistes. It was clear that they were far apart on many theological issues and reflected wider divisions in popular and scholarly Catholicism. Erasmus was convinced of the importance of education and that return to the sources was vital for authentic reform. He could be a cutting critic, as well as an inspirer of devotion. He provided reliable editions of some of the leading Fathers, as well as writing popular books on basic Christian belief and behaviour. Though he cherished the Catholic heritage, some more traditional Catholics regarded him as a corrupter of the faith.  His work was censured by the University of Paris and his books were totally banned by Sixtus V in 1590. The Roman Index banned some books, but permitted others, when they were carefully edited.  His importance has been widely recognized in the 20th century.

Ian Breward